Mesa’s new chef delivers a respectable menu

The last time I dined at Mesa was about three years ago — maybe more — when a group of us came here for dinner and drinks after the OC Auto Show. The only thing I took away from that experience was, well not much, seeing I never returned again.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to dinner at Mesa and I’d be lying if I said I was excited. However, that soon changed when I find out that the new chef, Niki Starr, is from the same school — maybe “family” is a better word — as some of my favorite young chefs in OC, including Aron Habinger and Joshua Han.

(photo below courtesy of Mesa)

8

We were presented first with an amuse bouche of steak tartare. After the first bite, I already knew this meal would go in a very positive direction. It was perfectly seasoned, and there were inclusions of ingredients which made it a little different from all the other steak tartares out there. Besides chives, there was watermelon radish to give the tartare both color and texture. The minute I tasted the mayo, I knew it was Japanese Kewpie mayo — the only mayo I have in my home — and a sprinkling of togarishi added a touch of heat to the finish.

(all food photos courtesy of Bobby Navarro)

tartare

Our first course of Beet Salad ($10) comprised roasted gold and red beets, nice chunks of Humbolt Fog blue to give it an element of saltiness, and an array of citrus which cleansed my palate between each bite. The orange and grapefruit were expected, but the one meyer lemon segment was definitely a surprise, making us giggle as the tartness surprised both my friend and I simultaneously. The prosecco vinaigrette is light and does not overwhelm, while the pistachio dust added a textural component to the dish.

beet salad

If you only order one dish at Mesa, make it Chef’s Spanish Style Mussels ($16). It was fun to watch as the sizzling hot plate makes its way from the kitchen to you. Black Prince Edward Island mussels with slivers of bilbao chorizo, tossed in a white wine sauce possess hints of smoked paprika, and is not to be missed. The flavors were intoxicating and you’ll want to soak up the juices with the grilled bread from OC Baking Company served on the side.

mussels

But perhaps, the simplest of all items is always the best. Holiday Sliders ($12/2pcs) were created in the spirit of Thanksgiving, but instead of turkey, Chef Niki uses shredded duck confit. A smear of potato puree on the mini potato bun serves as a base for the duck and then, it is topped with a festive cranberry orange compote. The sandwich brings the spirit of the holidays closer, but it is the gravy dipping sauce that’s really to-die-for!

turkey slider

Steelhead Salmon ($20) arrives with flaky fish under the crispy skin, and seasoned to perfection. Fire-roasted cauliflower and confit carrots accompany, with a spoonful of  stone ground mustard seed beurre blanc, and finished off with micro dijon.

salmon

I would have been happy after the salmon, but there was one more course to eat. Kurobota Grilled Pork Chop ($22) is drizzled with a smoked blackberry jus prepared using the pork belly braising liquid, and seasoned with a touch of blackberry liqueur. Sweet potato puree and flash fried Brussels sprouts are good accoutrements, adding a hint of sweetness to the pork.

pork

Although dessert isn’t always on my dining agenda, I accept a taste of my friends’ Bread Pudding ($8). Vanilla maple bacon adds a touch of saltiness to balance out the dulce de leche on the plate. I love the variety of textures Chef Niki features on every plate and here, cashew bits add crunch to the softness of the pudding and ice cream.

dessert

Mesa’s reputation of its menu being an after-thought to its libations will soon be a thing of the past if Chef Niki continues at the helm. The food is simple, but packed with appealing flavor profiles which even the fussiest of palates will appreciate. I, for one, was highly impressed by her ability to season her proteins perfectly. In time, the late night gourmands will find their way here and hopefully, change the perception that Mesa is only good as a drinking spot.

Mesa
725 Baker Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-557-6700

Mesa on Urbanspoon

a perfect meal at The North Left

I was never a big fan of The Crosby’s menu, so when it closed I wasn’t too sad about it. However, the restaurant which now occupies that space is a whole new story. Chef Ryan Adams of 370 Common is one of my favorite chefs in Orange County, and when I heard he had taken over, I was excited and pleased because I knew it would be a place where I would love the food and libations as well. If you’re not familiar with the space it’ll be hard for you to see it from the street simply because of the way the light reflects off the windows during the day. It is right next door to the Starbucks if that makes it easier. DSC04221 Chef Ryan spends his time at both restaurants which means he had to elicit the expertise of some trusted members of staff to keep the place going when he isn’t physically there. One of the notable personalities is Chef Aron Habinger, executive chef of The Crosby since its inception until about a year ago. I’m not a gin drinker, but agreed to try Cucumber Gimlet ($10) because I trust everything Chef Ryan does. The cocktail is refreshing with cucumber and lime with a good balance of sour for my palate. DSC04257 Order Salmon Belly ($14) if you are a seafood fan. The cured egg yolk shavings add a wonderful salty component to the delicate fish. The incredible asparagus spears are sous vide in beef fat — yes! how awesome is that — and light salad is refreshing and palate cleansing. A very respectable offering. DSC04265 I’m torn between the over-use of Brussels sprouts on menus and my love for them, but when push comes to shove, I will always order them, especially when they’re crazy good. Brussels Sprouts ($9) is a combination of my favorite flavor profiles — tart and salty — San Joaquin Gold cheese provides the latter. Hazelnuts add a lovely crunch for textural contrast. Divine! DSC04230 Have you ever had fresh chick peas? If not, Garbanzo ($8) is a perfect place to start. Garlic, chile, arugula, mint, what’s not to love? Squeeze some caramelized lime over skillet and it’s an ideal side for sharing. DSC04242 Even though this is a vegetable dish, Mushrooms ($12) is anything but vegetarian. Discs of King trumpet mushrooms are cooked in wagyu beef fat, topped with smoked maitake possessing a rich, robust flavor I can only smile about. DSC04249 If you’re a fan of Three Seventy Common’s fried chicken, then you’re in luck! You don’t have to wait every month to get some. Chicken Nuggets ($15) are just as good as the fried chicken Chef Ryan prepares at his Laguna Beach restaurant. In fact, I might like these just a tad more probably because they’re just that much crispier. The biscuit is amazing and the maple bourbon barbecue sauce is more tart than sweet — can I say I’m in love? DSC04233 A palette of colors makes Sea Bass ($19) not only pretty to look at, but it is equally delicious in my mouth. Charred pickled onions, espelette pepper powder, cauliflower, pistou, shallot soubise — so many flavors, all mouth-popping good. I love the balance of acid in every dish. Here, the pickled onions are just intoxicating. I want a bowl of it! DSC04253 Scallops $18) with smoked paprika, chorizo, roasted corn, popcorn — yes, popcorn — avocado and lemon is sublime. Now, there are two things I will always order when I see them on a menu. Scallops is one of them. The mollusks are cooked to perfection and the use of avocado works surprisingly well, although I’m not sure about the popcorn. I didn’t dislike it, I just wasn’t sure if adding that texture component was necessary. DSC04270 I don’t need dessert at the end of meal, but when it tastes like this, I say, “bring it on”. Strawberries ($9) is not as simple as it sounds. I have nothing but praise for Chef Andrea Guzman because she got me to take more than one bite — actually, I ate half of this bowl. But then again, panna cotta is one of my favorites and this is exceptionally smooth and the consistency is spot on. The strawberry granita adds some texture, while the cereal adds crunch. This is my kind of dessert and one of the simplest, yet most memorable, I’ve ever eaten. Bravo! So there you have it. The North Left is open and it is good. Really good. Grab a few friends and head on down. Sip on some cocktails, share some bites. I am confident you won’t regret it.

The North Left 400 N Broadway Santa Ana, CA 92701 Tel: 714-543-3543

The North Left on Urbanspoon

Watertable wins my heart on so many levels

Watertable at the Hyatt Huntington Beach has been open around three months, and I’ve already visited seven times. To say I am falling in love with this place is an understatement. If you were a regular visitor of The Californian, you won’t recognize the space. There is not a shred of the former decade-old restaurant to be found.

DSC02680

The only way I can describe Watertable is a sprawling hacienda-style mansion featuring Andalusian themes. Regardless of what you call it, the restaurant is a sight for sore eyes and my photos definitely does it no justice. It’s something you will have to step inside to really soak in what I’m talking about.

DSC02672

The metamorphosis is stunning, no expense spared, the intricacies and details are elaborate, but yet, classy and not over-the-top. There are many ways to enjoy Watertable beginning with “the library” to the adjacent gastro-bar, where a different menu may be enjoyed as opposed to the dining room menu offered in the various rooms which lie ahead — including the outside patio and the corridor with iron arches.

DSC02679

I can truly say, during each of my visits, I have sat in different rooms including “Sofia’s Room”, named for the lady in the painting hanging on the back wall. However, my favorites are the “lounge” situated to the right of the namesake watertable extending as high as the ceiling, proudly situated in the middle of the dining room. This is where all the water you drink comes from.

DSC02671

We always begin with a few cocktail selections which you will find featured on Watertable’s interactive menu. It is a difficult task deciding on one because there are just so many of them, all enticing and beautiful — cocktails average $12.

DSC02685

On many occasions we have selected the Old Fashion, or the HB Old Fashion. Then there is the Water Table, also pleasing, leaving a slight sweet finish on the tongue. The one signature tequila cocktail is delicious, with a hint of smokiness from the mescal, but presentation is dated.

DSC02541

On another occasion we have the light but refreshing version of the Moscow Mule, aptly named California Mule.

DSC04029-001

My favorite thing to do is sit in the bar area. There, you will be able to enjoy Watertable in all its glory. Start with a few selections such as the Bar Jars ($5/each) which are served with piping hot epi baguettes baked in-house and brushed with butter. Make sure you don’t over indulge as it is very easy to do. Leave some room for other delectables.

DSC04026

One of my favorites has been the Herb Grilled Baby Lamb Chops ($14). These succulent chops are served with a sweet onion chorizo-potato hash. Pick them up with your fingers and dig right in. You know I am not able to resist these when I have ordered them on every single visit — well except lunch but I’ll talk about that later.

DSC02548

Creamer Potato Cakes ($9), is a carb-lover’s dream. An alternative to French fries, these twice-fried potatoes are crispy on the outside with a soft interior. Even more delectable with a quick dunk into the rich, creamy truffle dip, it’s more like a “smashed-potato” rather than “cakes”. Regardless, they’re really good!

DSC02546

Baja California Yellowtail Crudo ($12), a vibrant palette of colors from pickled cauliflower, avocado, sweet peppers and micro mustard sprouts, creates a picturesque bounty, but unfortunately needed just a touch more acid and salt.

DSC02559

We were blown away by the sheer beauty of the Iberico and Fig Tart ($11). I’m happy to say, it tasted as delicious as it looked. Iberico ham, crumbled chevre, stone fruit, olive oil and black pepper are laid atop a flaky tart crust. This is a must-try!

DSC04036

In season right now is Organic Melon ($9), featuring compressed watermelon, ricotta salata, ver jus, golden pea shoots, radish, blueberry balsamic and meyer lemon. So simple, yet sublime. The combination of sweet, tart, salty is indescribable on the palate. You’ll just have to try it for yourself.

DSC04054

Don’t forget the Grilled and Chilled Octopus ($16), it is one of my favorites. Make sure you get a bit of the salt sprinkled on to the plate to have the perfect mouthful.

DSC04045

Another item not-to-be-missed item — Grilled White Corn Succotash ($6), an addicting side dish with smoky fire roasted peppers, vibrant baby green peas, and Sriracha butter. It is one of those things I order on every visit.

20140717_200406

Delightful servers — memorable ones include Danielle on one visit, and the delightful Ashley on another — help guide and shape a dining experience with knowledge and humor. Impeccable service and attention to detail makes a meal more enjoyable. We converse often, asking questions and trying to gauge which course of action to follow.

If you are still hungry after all of these, there are entrees to choose from such as the Grilled Veal T-Bone ($45) with roasted shallot, arugula greens, soft polenta, tomato pan jus.

DSC04057

Or, create your own from the “Your Menu” section where you can pair a protein of your choice such as Organic Chicken Breast ($19 6oz/$24 8oz), with a house-made scratch sauce — salbaxitada is amazing — and a side.

DSC02716

When it comes time for desserts, there is a good variety of sweet offerings. The best part is that they change seasonally to ensure optimum flavors in everything you put in your mouth.

If you happen to come during lunch, the menu is limited. There are some salads and a few sandwiches. However, the Chilled Avocado Gazpacho ($6) is what you should come for. It is absolutely breathtaking. Silky smooth avocado puree with chunks of blue lump crab makes for an ample lunch, especially when there are those addicting epi baguettes involved.

DSC03917

Orange County has definitely been waiting for Watertable. It may not know it yet, but once you experience this elegant but unpretentious destination, you’ll understand why. Service is stellar, paired with an incredible menu, this is the very best of everything under one roof. Plus, complimentary valet is offered — what more would you ask for?

Watertable
21500 Pacific Coast Hwy
Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Tel: 714-845-4776

Watertable on Urbanspoon

a long awaited revisit to Quinn’s Old Town Grill

The last time I was at Quinn’s Old Town Grill was seven years ago, and according to my Yelp review dated May of that year, I was not impressed. Last week, some friends decided to gather here for brunch and I was skeptical, but joined in mostly out of curiosity, but also, because I had heard that the restaurant had undergone some changes including a management and staff overhaul.

We arrived at 10am on a Sunday to find the place completely packed in both dining rooms as well as the patio. It was definitely bustling with even the bar stools taken up by customers.

20140622_103817

I wasn’t interested in drinking so early in the morning, but my friends were, so a round of Bloody Marys ($8.75) and Mimosas ($11.95 free flowing) were ordered. The other thing I’d like to mention is that the busboys fill the water glasses up with ice, which is a huge plus. I hate room temperature water and always have to ask for ice. I loved how I didn’t have to do that here.

DSC03351

But I was famished as usual, and could not wait to dig into some food. The kitchen was on the slow side this morning but when the food started to hit the table, I was not disappointed.

One of my usual gauges for breakfast is always eggs Benedict. We decide to steer away from the traditional, and instead, opt for the Irish Benedict ($11.50) with corned beef rather than the Canadian ham we are all familiar with. The corned beef is a great choice — tender, moist, and not overly salty. I loved the hints of citrus in the Hollandaise sauce, something I’m really picky about. My only complaint is the slightly overcooked poached eggs, but overall, I was happy with this dish.

DSC03354

Corned Beef Hash ($10.25) is something I shun because so many restaurants open a can of mush and call it corned beef. These days, there is dog food that is far more sophisticated than a can of Libby’s and just the smell of the canned stuff makes my stomach turn. You won’t have to worry about that here. The generous chunks of house-made corned beef is interspersed with chunks of potatoes — not all smashed together might I add — is hearty and very good. It is what I will compare all corned beef hash to in the future.

DSC03358

I am a huge fan of sausages and therefore, when someone ordered Bangers & Eggs ($10.95) I did not object. The bangers are grilled, albeit required a few more minutes on the flattop, possessed nice flavors and definitely something I would order again.

DSC03371

We could not leave without trying the Chicken & Waffles ($13.50) and it was absolutely stellar, with perfect crispiness on the outside and juiciness on the inside. Why would I need to drive to Roscoe’s when Quinn’s offers up a comparable option so close by? The other thing worth mentioning is that the waffle is indescribably good. I am not a fan of waffles and I could not stop eating it especially slathered with the butter and a drizzle of syrup. The salty sweet gooey softness was addicting.

DSC03366

Since it was brunch, some lunch items were also featured including the very stellar Alaskan Cod Fish & Chips ($14.50/2pc or $15.75/3pc). The fish is nice and flaky, very moist, and I was okay with the amount of coating although just a hint less would be even better. The most impressive thing was the perfectly cooked steak fries. Each piece was browned well and stayed crispy throughout the meal.

DSC03374

The only dish I did not care for was the Patty Melt ($10.95) which comprised of an under-seasoned Black Angus beef patty topped with grilled onions and cheddar cheese. The menu stated Jewish rye bread, but it arrived on white. The entire sandwich lacked flavor and texture, with the bread not completely toasted all the way through. I took the leftovers home, warmed it up in a pan so it crisped up and added some spicy mustard to it. It was definitely far tastier this way.

DSC03372

I am glad my friend lured me back to Quinn’s. The food has definitely improved tremendously. Make no mistake that this is indeed old school dining, even so, a little work to improve the plating is definitely needed in the near future.

Quinn’s Old Town Grill
405 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780
Tel: 714-731-2263

Quinn's Old Town Grill on Urbanspoon

Sea and Smoke — San Diego

I had seen friends posting about Sea & Smoke for quite a while now, so on a recently visit to San Diego, we decided to stop in for dinner to check it out. It is right off the 5 freeway in Del Mar in a plaza I’m quite familiar with. The restaurant is impressive which puzzles me why they have chosen this spot to open. But then, we see Cucina Enoteca just down the way in the same plaza. I guess the whole place is getting a face-lift with new restaurants and renovations.

SEA AND SMOKE SD

The interior is classic but modern, the bar area seems to be the most popular spot with people hanging out and converging. However, my favorite area is the outside courtyard, reminiscent of a beautiful garden on a luscious estate. The color scheme also makes for a rather relaxing experience.

DSC02793

We settled in for an early dinner beginning with some cocktails. Barolo Manhattan Rye with Barolo Chinato and House Bitters ($12) and a Kentucky Punch Bourbon ($9)  refreshing and light with citrus, green tea and wine.

PhotoGrid_1403488788460_1

Although I was not able to partake in the Oysters Del Mar ($15), my son devoured his portion with gusto. These broiled oysters smelled incredible prepared with a spinach mornay, topped with parsley bread crumbs and of course bacon.

DSC02757

I’ll always order octopus when I see it, I just can’t help it. Charred Octopus ($13) was flavored nicely, all the way through even at the thickest part. Roasted ancho pepper romesco is a good accompaniment and made for a colorful plate, but I did not feel it was required. Warm frisee, golden raisins and green olives seemed a strange pairing at first, but worked well together. The octopus was slightly over-charred in some areas, but on the whole, a lovely dish.

DSC02760

Creamed Polenta ($16) is one of those vegetarian dishes even a carnivore will love. In fact, it was so good I had not one complaint about it, except how huge the portion was — not really a negative, I know. Topped with an incredible tomato eggplant caponata, currants, green olive, rapini and parmesan, I’m not sure the currants added much except to give it a little sweetness, but it was perfect without.

DSC02779

We were looking for some entrees with more protein involved and naturally, the boy leaned towards the Niman Ranch Burger ($13). I took a bite of it and was highly impressed by the perfectly medium rare temperature — as we had ordered it. The smoked onion jam was robust and so rich on the palate. Using both Swiss and cheddar cheeses also added to the decadence of this burger. Definitely a respectable dish all around. You can add bacon or avocado for an extra $2 each.

DSC02773

I ordered the Local White Seabass ($25) and was delighted to find it perfectly executed. The outside was well-seared and the inside remained moist and fork-tender. Accoutrements of black olives, orange and fennel worked together and the brown butter potato puree was light.

DSC02784

I really enjoyed our meal here and was elated that the chef put together a menu with ingredients I don’t ordinarily see together, and didn’t think would work together. Definitely a worthy dining choice when you are down San Diego way.

Sea and Smoke
2690 Via Mar Valle
Del Mar, CA 92014
Tel: 858-925-8212

Sea & Smoke on Urbanspoon

a glass of wine & some nibbles at SeaLegs

What happens when you meet your girlfriend(s) for a drink? You end up eating WAY too much while you’re having a drink or two, that’s what. SeaLegs Wine Bar in Huntington Beach is a great spot for a glass of wine — or two, or three. The bar is the best spot to do this because whoever is pouring will also give you some great suggestions as to what foods to pair your wine with, or vice versa!

Steven was our barkeep this evening, and I have encountered Steven several times before. In fact, we even have some mutual friends which makes the experience even more relaxing and enjoyable. I do apologize for the photos as I used my phone’s camera to capture everything we ate.

DSC05810

We wanted some things to nibble on and were in luck as there were several spring items recently added to the menu. Grilled Turkey Meatballs ($12) are tender, seasoned with harissa, just a tad under-salted for me. A tzatziki dipping sauce accompanies. These were paired with our first pours of Chacewater Sauvignon Blanc and Haus Creek Cuvee White Blend. The latter possessed scents of honey and honeysuckle while the sauvignon blanc was refreshing and lighter than what I’m normally accustomed to.

20140527_171758

Beef Carpaccio ($14) is always perfect with wine and the one here is good. Fried crispy capers add a nice salty tartness and the well-dressed arugula is spicy. Don’t be afraid to ask for more lemon — I do — to drizzle over the thin beef slices. I love that burst of citrus on my palate!

20140527_183230

Farm Fresh Flatbread ($14) was absolutely perfect. The combination of burrata, mozzarella, parmesan nestle between the vibrant vegetables is fresh and delightful. Included are asparagus, zucchini, squash, micro arugula and basil. Not only was this visually pleasing but we agreed it was absolutely delicious as well.

20140527_181237

I am a fiend when it comes to Mussels and Clams ($16), never missing out on the opportunity to devour some. We were amazed by how plump the littleneck clams and Prince Edward Island mussels were. Add to that a briny broth dotted with bacon, shallots, garlic, leeks and white wine, it was all too scrumptious to stop. If I wasn’t sharing, I would have picked the bowl up and slurped it.

20140527_172532

Our next drinks came in the form of reds, the Chateau Coutinel is a light red, one we all enjoyed with the next of our dishes.

20140527_174539

Braised Chicken Tacos ($9) are so flavorful and the pickled onions are a great touch. Even so, I spritzed a little lemon juice on them for extra freshness.

20140527_183255

The Lobster Sliders might not be on the menu when you go, but it comes back from time to time and are pretty good to share, or as an entree for yourself.

20140527_175656

I wasn’t planning on ordering Quinoa Crab Fried Rice ($18) but I saw someone eating it across the bar, someone who ravished it under five minutes, and I couldn’t resist. The shards of crab meat ran throughout and the runny egg adds a creamy dimension to the plate. I loved the crunch of the bean sprouts making it deliciously addicting. I think this was our absolute favorite!

20140527_190053

If you’re on your own, SeaLegs Wine Bar is the perfect place to dine at the bar. If you’re with a group, the lounge is great for a casual get-together. Soon, SeaLegs will offer outdoor patio dining as well.

SeaLegs Wine Bar
21022 Beach Blvd
Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Tel: 714-536-5700

Sea Legs Wine Bar on Urbanspoon